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Valhalla Rising (2009)
What's the story? Simple as that. Man's inhumanity to man? Self-realization? Redemption? An odyssey, perchance? A brutal killing machine, chained up for fighting like a dog, attended by a boy by a Viking chief with a gambling habit. Some violent, dirty scenes fought in the mud, all staged for the pleasure and gaming spirit of overlording on-lookers whose agenda is never made clear. Slight suggestions of tensions along the way. Lots of staring. Lots of going into the mind tableaux. lots of dirt, rain, discomfort and violence. Everyone's a cut-out caricature. The pagans are pagan. They despise the Christians. The Christians are Zealots, killing for Jesus. All through it, One-eyes stares, kills, spares no one and is says nothing. His thoughts are expressed through the boy. His Christian shipmates loath and fear him.
The journey, to save the Holy Land, takes them to someplace mindful of the New World. The arrows that appear from unseen sources are stone. The confusion builds and then, ... sacrifice? Man, this film had some potential but the mythic underpinnings are so convoluted, at the end, you wind up saying, "Huh?" Alas, the writer of this disappointing venture just didn't do his homework. The reason this film doesn't work is because there is no story. One-eye is a great Norse Metaphor as Odin/Woden gave his eye for wisdom. But, that's as far as it goes: One-eye had his eye taken from him, one surmises, in a fight. He's a survivor. His finding an arrow blade becomes the key to his immersion from the lower depths. But, it goes no further. His mission, after a poorly defined revenge, then is to go somewhere he's not a slave. The boy, his alter-ego, says he's looking for his "home" but also says, he's "...from Hell." The problem with that metaphor is that it doesn't fit the myth. So, we're left with a ensemble of stereotypes arrayed in a series of very boring, staring scenes, sparked by bloody violence.
It could have been better.
Interesting perspective on Stieglitz and O'Keefe
Christopher Plummer and Jane Alexander play the title roles in this made for TV movie of two of the most interesting artists of the 20th century. I mean, who but an art history student will remember the work of Alfred Stieglitz, the some-time, part-time husband of the great painter, Georgia O'Keefe? Likely few, if any reading this review. However, as a biopic addict, I remember seeing this with the interest of learning something about the woman who painted vaginas reflected in flowers and the sun-bleached bones of dead cattle. What emerges is an amazing story of how an early liberated woman of the 20th century married a relatively amoral man who was able to promote her work and get it in the public's eye by making it attractive to the wealthy and remain her husband at the same time he was chasing around after wealthy patrons. Less is made in this drama about the long-term relationship between O'Keefe, Stieglitz and socialite, Dorothy Norman, whose deep pockets indirectly supported O'Keefe's work largely through Stieglitz's affair with Norman. What does come through, however, is the niche that O'Keefe found in New Mexico and her association with a coterie of fellow artists like Ansel Adams. If this shows up, it's definitely worth viewing if for nothing more than seeing Plummer's portrayal of Stieglitz as a thorough-going cad.
Potential Cult Classic
OK, besides Ed Harris and Tom Savini, who else is in this amazing biker film from the early 80s? Well, it doesn't really matter because sometimes things just come together in a way that transcends what the likely original intent was, to patch together a biker movie about jousting knights who engage in feudal combat from motorcycles instead of horses. Yep. The costumes are a bit cheesy, the acting is a bit raw and amateurish and the story..., ah, the story: The story is the Arthurian tragedy of innocence, self sacrifice, honor and unfaithfulness. The tale works around the triad of the King, the very young Ed Harris, the villain, the wonderful Tom Savini and the knight protector, Lancelot, Gary Lahti. Each of these figures represents an archetype which very likely unbeknown to the film makers and they come through wonderfully in the way in which this tale is patched together. Billy,as the King Arthur prototype is idealistic, uncompromising loyal to his own mythology and like the legendary Arthur, ego-less. His loyal knight retainer, Alan, is Lancelot in his nobility and loyalty to his sovereign while coveting his wife all the time. Savini is purely delightful as the Modred counterpart, even taking Morgan le Fay's name as a pun. Morgan covets the crown and tries to usurp it by going off only to discover his new realm is a forest of paper tigers. The final scene and resolution of the tragedy works wonderfully, giving a the only glimpse of the famous story-teller and raconteur, Brother Blue as the wizard, Merlin.
As an anthropologist and mythologist, I saw this tale back in the early 80s and was impressed how the underlying mythology of an essentially low budget film held together in such a wonderful way in spite of a few flaws. I consider it a cult classic.
The faceplate review of this film is excellent. It's an indie, slow moving, full of tristesse and dysfunctional people. The underlying theme song might have been the Beatle's classic, "Strawberry Fields," with its haunting theme, "Nothing is real..." Russell Crowe, a much better actor than most people are willing to give him credit for gives a superb but fleeting performance, coming in and out of the action created by the two focal characters, the pathological Eric, played by handsome, boy-next-door type Jon Foster and the suicidal nymphet Lori, played the young Canadian Sophie, whose ambiguous nubile sexuality adds an amazing texture to the story. The story itself is a trip through purgatory with injured, wounded souls seemingly coming out of the woodwork. A brief encounter with the wonderful Laura Dern as the cautious and aware Aunt Sophie adds to the movement of the story. This is excellent film-making and it will stay with me for a long time, albeit I can't say for a moment that I enjoyed watching it. However, it is a reminder that some things are worth more being experienced rather than merely enjoyed. We're left with the question, "are there really people out there like these wounded, dysfunctional souls?" And, the only answer we can come up with is "Perhaps." But, the greater lesson is that not all of us fit nicely into the social order. And, isn't that what purgatory's all about?
Disappointing-- possible **SPOILER**
It's hard to believe that the same guy who wrote Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Time Line and Eaters of the Dead (The 13th Warrior) wrote this container of once used fetid dog food. The premise of the story is bad enough, i.e., apes who learn American Sign Language are able to vocalize through technology but moreover, they retain arcane knowledge that is revealed in their art. But, hey. It's fiction-- even if it's bad fiction. So, for what Crichton was able to do so imaginatively for Jurassic Park fell on its face in this one. OK. Who wins them all? But, then Congo the movie shows up at the theaters and I'm dumb enough to buy a ticket. Whereas the book merely stunk, the movie reeked. Laura Linney was lovely but miscast as a corporate mercenary, Dylan Walsh was completely unbelievable as the primatologist and then the usually wonderful Tim Curry was dreadful as the eccentric Homolka. And, it goes down from there. Storywise, corporate greed in the background of Central Africa's unstable, violent and often brutal politics. My advice is don't rent it and you're watching it on TV on the late show or a rainy day, see if you can find an old rerun of I Love Lucy. It'll be much more entertaining and so much better written.
The British film, Creation, finally showed up in Sacramento. I'd been looking forward to it for some time as being a BBC product, I know the script would be well written and with the competent Paul Bettany and lovely Jennifer Connelly as CR and Emma Darwin, I knew that alone would be worth the price of admission for 2 seniors.
The storyline pretends to focus on the preparation of CR's writing On the Origin. I'd known that, of course, not from just being a Darwin addict but also from reading the reviews in the New Yorker, Time and New York Review of Books. Visually, the film is delightful with splendid costuming and recapturing visual scenes of those times. The story largely unfolds in at the Darwin house in Down with some spot flashbacks. The supporting cast is likewise superb with Jeremy Northam as the local Vicar, Innes, Toby Jones as Huxley and Ben Cumberbatch as Hooker. So, I walked in and prepared to be delighted.
However, what unfolds is a hodge-podge of romantic speculation surrounding the death of Annie Darwin, which portrays her as a ghostly manifestation of CR's alter Ego, drawn out on a canvas of his misgivings about promulgating his ideas on natural selection. There is some excellent repartee presented on the gentle but firm coaxing by Hooker and aggressive and feisty prodding by Huxley, but behind it, you the portrayed ideological misgivings of Emma who is presented as much more fundamentalist in her views than the recorded biographies of the Darwins afford.
The Wedgewoods and Darwins were hardly that docternaire. Indeed, they were Unitarians, Whigs and outspoken abolitionists. Old Joshua Wedgewood and Erasmus Darwin, CR and Emma's common grandfathers, were active supporters of the abolitionist, William Wilberforce, Soapy Sam's father. So, for the serious Darwin history buff, there's a rub.
However, what follows is a presentation as CR as kind of schizophrenic John Nash who pursues his ghostly alter ego manifestation, his dead daughter, Annie, into a final confrontation with his own grief.
OK. We're not seeing documentary, I remind myself, we're seeing fictional biopic. So, we can let that part go. However, the scene where CR gives his ms of the On the Origin, to Emma and then the discretion to read or burn, stretches the point out proportion in my view.
Other points: little is made by CR's receiving Wallace's letter and paper on Natural Selection. Bettany's CR merely gives a somewhat cynical grin, dismissing this startling news with a "Gosh. I didn't need this ..." attitude. Lyell, alas, is completely written out of the script to give the Rev. Innes more screen time to press the point of a religious conflict that, according to received wisdom and well documented historical evidence, CR had long resolved in his own mind.
So, all and all: As an anthropologist and live-long Darwin scholar and fan, I'd give Creation a B- on the academic side based on what I perceive as a distortion of the relevant facts and evidence but certainly an A- on the quality of BBC historical drama. There's no doubt in the any of the biographers' works on CR that he and Emma were devastated by Annie's death by either typhus or diphtheria. However, to present the life and conflict of a man dedicated to the scientific method within a mystical light and framework, I found to be most discomforting.
Extraordinary Measures (2010)
The faceplate reviewer goes out of his way to pan the leads, Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser as being too old, curmudgeonly and too fat and weepy. OK. Thanks for expressing those opinions, which, BTW, I don't share. Yes. There's no doubt this is a sentimental flick with great emotional overtones and certainly qualifies as a three hanky job. Seeing children suffer, whether they're cute, charming, cuddly or not, is not pleasant. But, the fact that there are these kinds of kids who endure the ravages of disease stemming from their own bodies is a sad reality and I would argue it takes a pretty stern person to consider these conditions unemotionally. The movie is based on a book and like any biopic, a certain amount of license is taken in bringing the story to the screen. However, the story is never maudlin. The script is full of sentiment but never slips down to the level of being overly sentimental. In effect, it's a tale of people with various agendas driven by the desperation of a father trying to help his children from dying an early death. There is no deus ex machina, here. The conflicts which impede the goal largely stem from the personal agendas of the players in the drama. Sound familiar? You bet. That's what good writing is all about and when life imitates myth, it's even better. This is a good movie. Go see it. And, if you do so without puddling up at the eyeballs, you're made of sterner stuff than me.
Just one great film
People forget that Nelson Mandela came to power at a time when his country was bitterly divided. There was the bitter experience that white South Africans saw in their neighboring countries,i.e., Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe and other nations where the White colonialist had been replaced by Black African politicians and a stable government had been replaced by corrupt, self-serving regimes where those in power feathered their nests after seizing the assets of their former White citizens and placed all their friends in positions of authority with the result of the country going to the dogs. The scene where the Afrikaaner newspaper remarks, "Mendela can get elected but can he run a country," and the superb Morgan Freeman remarks to his bodyguard that the headline raises a good point.
In a sense, this film is about Mandela. The rugby team becomes a metaphor of what he faced when ascending to the presidency, a nation divided. Noting that the Black South Africans were cheering for the opposition in the face of the old Apartheid guard whose love of rugby unified them. It's easy to forget that there was a great division among White South Africans, i.e., the descendants of the Boers, Afrikaaners, and the rest. There was even a middle ground with the "Coloreds," Asian South Africans, being caught between these two worlds and there were bitter rivalries among the competing African political interest groups as well.
Mandela's focus on reviving the national rugby team and making it a symbol of a new united nation homes in on the role of Matt Damon, an Afrikaaner who's the captain of the team. Francois is the catalyst that makes this story work and Damon, the rugged Mick from Boston, does a fantastic job showing the transition from hopelessness to hope as many White South Africans felt at that time. The wonderful thing about this film is its touching on all the levels. It goes beyond being merely the story of a single man or group of men. Sure, we love a "feel good" movie and of course we love an "underdog can win" flick, but this film works works because its about people working together to rebuild something new for everybody.
The film reeks with great moments: Pienaar visiting the cell where Mandela spent more than 20 years of his life, thinking and planning; The New Zealand Rugby team doing their Maori threat dance before the match; the jet buzzing the field before the game-- and so on. See it. Enjoy it. And, don't forget, it's a bit of history. Romanticized? Somewhat. Mandela wasn't able to solve all of South Africa's big problems, but he did one bang-up job for the Springboks.
Julius Caesar (1970)
Julius Caeser was an enigmatic character historically, as well as in Shakespeare's portrayal of him. Reading his works in Latin is both a delight and wonder. The propaganda of the Gallic Wars lays the foundation for wartime journalism, portraying the enemy as something slightly less than human and the cause of the invaders as something noble and enlightened. Having said this, one looks at the Bard's depiction of Caeser's assassination and his portrayal of Caeser as something different from History.
Sir John Gielgud was always stately in whatever role he played. He was an excellent Cassius in the 1955 version but seems a bit distanced in his role as the Dictator. One reviewer accuses him of being a ham and "overacting." Well, thanks for sharing that unshared opinion. Heston plays Moses playing Marc Anthony and Jason Robards grumbles his lines as Brutus. The real role that justifies the price of admission is that of the Brit, Richard Johnson whose angry, sullen Cassius stands out against Robards's wooden Brutus. Christopher Lee and Robert Vaughn both execute their roles splendidly as do the ladies, Jill Bennett and the ever lovely Diana Rigg. The pretty boy role of Octavius by Richard Chamberlain was merely OK and clumsy and the fight scenes seem a bit cranky compared to what we see today. But, we're in it for Shakespeare, not a shoot'em or garish cast of thousands recreating bloody battle scenes.
I prefer the 1955 version with the Ham of hams, Brando as Mark Antony and Louis Calhern as Caesar. There, the great Gielgud and a competent James Mason made the respective roles of the conspirators, Cassius and Brutus sparkle.
Three Priests (2008)
The Cain and Abel myth so well played out in East of Eden fails here. Due in part to a waste of talent like Wes Studi and Michael Parks as a Wheezy mumbling, bumbling father figure. The acting is OK but the script-- Ugh. The best thing I can say, is don't waste your time watching this confusing and confused tale of woe. Michael Parks is a talented actor but drove his ducks to a muddy pond on this outing.
I suppose the worst part of the encounter is the slow pace and lack of continuity where the sons either strut, Alexander Martin, or pout, Aaron Duffey. This sad attempt to lay out a family saga in the American Western tradition winds up with little tension and inspires very little interest in the characters. In short, it's boring and that's unforgivable.